Monday, September 14, 2009

Sigurd Grava, Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University

Sigurd Grava, Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University, died suddenly at home on September 14, 2009. Sig, as he was known, was 74 years old. He was born on September 25, 1934, in Liepāja, Latvia. He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Ruta and his son Lars. He immigrated to the United States in 1950.

Sig Grava was an internationally recognized expert in transport and infrastructure planning. His work took him to all corners of the world. As Vice President and Technical Director of Planning at Parsons Brinckerhoff, Sig was the team leader on many the major planning projects that shaped New York over the last three decades. His work has brought him international honors. He was an elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and elected a member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. He also was awarded the Order of the Three Stars from the Republic of Latvia (Triju Zvaigžņu Ordenis).

His 2003 book Urban Transportation Systems: Choices for Communities published by McGraw-Hill is a mainstay reference on the world’s urban transport systems. His writings have appeared in all the scholarly journals in his field.

He received his Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the City College of New York in 1955, his masters’ degree in housing and planning from Columbia University in 1957 and his Ph.D. in transportation planning in 1965. He has been a member of the planning faculty at Columbia since 1960.

In his close to 50 year affiliation with the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Professor Grava has taught several generations of Columbia planning students. His graduates are among the most influential planners of the current generation. Sig was fond of saying that all he did was teach the rudiments of planning noting that the most important lesson he taught in site planning was that water could not run uphill. In truth he taught quite sophisticated classes demanding methodological rigor from all his students. His sardonic wit and planning wisdom will be sorely missed in Avery Hall.


  1. Posted by Elliott Sclar, Professor of Urban Planning, Columbia Univ

    Summing up Sig’s more than half a century connection to Urban Planning at Columbia is not a tough challenge. It is an impossible one. As with any long relationship, it is a nuanced and complex story. So what I want to talk about is the one constant through all the many ups and downs; that is the depth of Sig’s character, the power of his personality, sharpness of his intellect, his wry sense of humor to say nothing of the breadth of his size. The reality is that Sig Grava was a larger than life character in every way possible and as a result there is now an equally large hole in our program. It is going to take a very long time for it to close.

    Sig’s was a kind-hearted personality that he presented to the world dressed up in the guise of a stern curmudgeon. Students, all of who came to love him would all tell me a similar story; their first encounters with him would make them quake in fear. He had a way of staring at them and questioning them that would lead them to believe that they would never measure up. I know of more than one student who waited until the second year of the program before they had the courage to enter his class. They would all then tell me something I already knew, that he was a great big teddy bear. They quickly learned that Sig would invest as much of his own time and effort in each of them as they needed, provided that they put in the time and effort themselves.
    Sig was a pillar of the planning program. For almost one-half a century through good times and bad, through good deans and bad, Sig was always there to defend the program’s integrity. I am sure that if there are traffic jams in heaven, and there is an ample supply of Jack Daniels, traffic will soon be flowing smoothly on the other side of the pearly gates. Sig, we at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation will do our best to maintain the combination of high standards of professional planning combined with the joie d’vivre that you so cherished and insisted needed to go together.

  2. Sig was my instructor in a number of classes and my thesis advisor. He was a man of few words. His green pen could slash through plans and paragraphs. But its green color and the legitimacy of his comments lessened the pain which disappeared totally by the time he and his wife had their cocktail party for the graduating class at the end of the year.

    Graduation did not end his generosity. He always took or returned calls. It was a pleasure knowing and working with him.

    Altan Kolsal, Class of 1997

  3. Elloit Sclar said it all. When I came to class fresh from Candeub, Fleissig and Associates, I was really pleased to meet Sig Grava. He was just one year older than I. I called him "Sig" on that first day and he gave me that look and said, "DOCTOR Grava" to you!" Miffed, I always called him "Doctor Grava" from then on. Once when I froze up giving a presentation, he roared at me, "Don't you know the North is supposed to be at the top?!" and as I turned to respond with sarcasm, all fear left and I was able to begin my presentation to the critics. He never let on, but he knew how to take care of us. He even jumped the date of my thesis presentation by several months when he found I had started a new job. It nearly killed me to meet his deadline, but unlike many of my class mates, I DID finish and I DID get my MSUP, thanks to a man of great wisdom, skill and compassion. Twenty years later, on a project together, he asked me to call him "Sig". "Thanks,Doctor Grava." That lesson, and all the other things he taught me, stuck, and stood me in good stead in the 40 years as a professional urban planner dealing with transportation, development, and social justice. I am just sorry I did not get to see him more often through the years. He was a major factor in my professional success, and it was a privilege to know him.

    Lois Dean Courtney

  4. I just want to add that not only was Sig a dedicated professor and planner, not only was he accomplished, not only was he a memorable personality (and I mean that only in the most positive sense), not only was he a man of character, but he was someone who really loved New York City.

    In the late 80s, shortly after I finished my coursework in the Urban Planning program, I worked at the now defunct NYC agency Ports and Trade. The City had recently started its private ferry program. Sig came down to have lunch with us to share ideas about ferries and the waterfront. There was nothing in it for him or PB, he just wanted to help out.

    My colleagues at Ports were amazed that someone so accomplished would give their time for free. I was less amazed, because I knew it was just Sig being Sig. But I certainly was proud to show off to my coworkers that I had someone so dedicated as my professor.

    He will be missed.

    -Kevin Costa

  5. Being out of touch with Columbia from having moved to Asia shortly after graduating GSAPP in 1996, I am very saddened to read of Sig's passing, these six months on. Sig was one of my thesis advisors as I focussed on transportation in my Urban Planning masters' program, and I was happy to visit with him during the several times I returned to New York in the years after graduating. He was a large personality, he had a presence, and he was respected, not because he demanded it, but because he would not be treated with less than that.

    I am grateful to have known him and to have been able to work with him. He is special in my life. My best thoughts to his wife and his son.

    Gina Manzo Anderson, Class of 1996

  6. Hello,

    I am a collector of stamps from Latvia. recently I purchaed a grouping of correspondence that included a lot of letters writtien to Sig, mainly in Latvian. I thought his family might be interested in receiving them. I'd like to return them to his family if possible. If anyone reads this please email and let me know. Michael

  7. He was my advisor (tutor), when I was at Columbia as a visiting scholar.
    He was not only a very professional professor, he was a very good man with a huge sense of humour.
    No words to say how it is sad to know he left...
    I just want to say th his family: Please accept my condolences

    Sultanbek Usenov, Kyrgyzstan,
    a visiying scholar to Columbia 2004-2005

  8. I was one of a dozen non-architectural student admitted to the MSUP program in 1964. It was in Dr. Grava's class that I learned FORTRAN programming, which led directly to my thesis topic the following year (Electronic Data Processing and its Application to Urban Planning). Having no design background or ability, I found the courses taught by Dr. Grava greatly practical compared to my floundering in the required design courses. We were assigned a task in New Town design to come up with a concept for the project. I was one of six who had six different concepts and were grouped together to meld something together, which we initially couldn't. Dr. Grava called us in one Saturday and said, more or less, I don't care what you decide to do, but you must decide to do something. That's a lesson I never forget. When a decision is called for--decide. It may not be the right decision, but then you won't know until you try. For Dr. Grava, and me, indecision was never an option.
    John Weersing, Class of 1966

  9. Thanks for giving me a shot at Columbia professor Grava.... I ejoyed having you as a teacher. You did excellent as acting Dean for the program.

    RENE Baez 1994

  10. Thanks for giving me a shot at Columbia professor Grava.... I ejoyed having you as a teacher. You did excellent as acting Dean for the program.

    RENE Baez 1994